A City on a Hill

  • Posted: July 6, 2016
  • Category: Blog
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Where are we? Does anybody know? Can we Google our location and get back to normal? Even though the latest Alice in Wonderland movie was a dud, her influence permeates Washington. It isn’t as if we weren’t warned. After all, she told us what the world would be like if she was running things. She said it straight out:

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

No I don’t see Alice, the logic of it all escapes my pedestrian mind  imagining a logical world. But then the world outside intrudes and I see. You did what you said you were going to do and you did it. I salute you. You were a prophetess disguised as a child. But then doing what you said you were going to do is so old fashioned. You should have warned us. Oh you did. My bad.

At the same time our President is sexting Iranian Ayatollahs, he is lecturing our best friends in the world about what is in their best interests. But like misbehaving children, they didn’t vote in accordance with his paternal advice and now they will have to be punished. They must go to the “back of the queue”. Is this real? That great nation that shares our language and our values, our truest friends for nearly two centuries – they are being lectured on civilized behavior by the Harvard law professor masquerading as our President? You have to be kidding me? That grinding noise you hear must be the sound of the dead on Normandy’s beaches turning over in their graves.

Christians in the Middle East are being systematically killed, enslaved and otherwise eradicated from their lands, lands that have been their home since the time of Christ and before. The civilized world has a well-worn word for what is happening – genocide. It is a legal term, so official Washington should be able to parse its meaning. After a long wait, one nation has used military force to intervene on the Middle East Christian’s behalf, Russia. A nation most recently known as “the godless communists” is the only friend Middle East Christians seem to have. Our own leaders painstakingly sidestep any recognition of radical Islam’s reality.

Our own country is in the middle of a Presidential election. We have two candidates. The chief virtue of the one is that he has the sheer bad manners to say things that everyone in the country is thinking. The chief virtues of the other are her gender and the Mafioso-like influence of her family. But even with that pair of aces in her hand, she was nearly upset by an old man whose chief virtue was that unlike her, he was neither a bald faced liar nor openly corrupt.

This is our country today, the United States I, and you, live in. How is it that Alice could see the future so well? The reality of our wealth and power make us influential, a force that the world must accommodate, no matter our fecklessness. But where once we were a city on a hill, admired by the world as they watched in wonder, a beacon of hope to the poor and downtrodden of all nations and races, the world now averts their eyes at the latest high point in our race to the sewers depths. They still want our money. They are human after all, but shake their heads at the depraved depths to which we have fallen and the artless tomfoolery of our foreign policy.

There was once something called American exceptionalism. We once believed ourselves to be unique, set apart and called to greatness. To revisit that noble phrase, we imagined ourselves a city on a hill, a shining beacon. We thought we stood for something noble. A President once thrilled us, and spoke for us, when he said:

“. . we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Grandiose words? Perhaps, but those words were only a simple statement of what had been done twenty years before. The Americans listening that day had already lived the truth he spoke. They, or their parents, had paid the price, bore the burden, met the hardship, supported the friend and opposed the foe. As a historical aside, the people that our schoolmarm President hectors are the friends supported, the friends our fathers and grandfathers bled and died beside to assure the success and survival of liberty. But that is all passed.

Those who think and speak for the United States no longer believe we are exceptional. Truth be known, they only believe what they have been taught. They were taught we are a racist nation, an oppressor, a polluter. You name the sin, and we are the chief sinner. If other nations are our friends, it is the logical assumption that they are fellow sinners equally deserving of condemnation. If other nations were our enemies, it is equally logical that we have sinned against them, oppressed them. To friendly nations we offer sackcloth and ashes. To our enemies, we offer friendship and seek their forgiveness.

How did we get from there to here? What happened? The short answer is that we went to school. We were educated. We moan about how bad our schools are, but at the end of the day, they do a pretty good job on the kids who are willing to learn. And it turns out that the kids who are willing to learn are the ones who run things, vote, make decisions and form our government. Our citizens, the ones willing to learn, were good students learning their lessons well.

Our history teachers teach us that American History has been one long saga of oppressing the poor, women, people of color, the LGBT community and Native Americans. Whereas North America was a peaceful Eden before the “White Man” arrived, since then it has been one long rapacious ravage of the environment and genocidal elimination of helpful and welcoming Native Americans.

If you seek the source of our present political disharmony, look no further than your neighborhood school. We believe in educating our children. We scrimp and save to give them the best education we can. We sacrifice our time and energy. Is there a more universally agreed upon truth in America than the great good of Education?

But what are we teaching our children? Despite our fears and nattering, our schools do a good job teaching science and math, the fact based subjects. I was in a position to work with substantial numbers of newly graduated engineers before I retired, both male and female. I was amazed at the depth and quality of their knowledge, far better than my own skills at that age. Our teachers and schools are doing yeoman’s work at this task.

But school also serves to develop character, worldview and civic duty. This is the task of the Humanities, the soft subjects. Again, our schools do a good job with students. But what are they taught? When our children graduate from school, what literature has shaped their thoughts and ideals? What has their history courses taught them about their country? What ideals are set before them to strive for?

This is the time when some will interrupt in indignation, reading from a script well worn. “Our teachers are wonderful people. Teachers are selfless people that love kids, working in a school system that doesn’t pay them anywhere near what they’re worth.” True enough. But such a response also highlights the great success of our schools.

The schools have labored long and hard to change the interaction of the school, and by extension society, with the student. Students are no longer individuals and treated as such. Students are their gender, their race, their ethnicity, their emotional equilibrium. This Balkanization, this dehumanization, has, over time, spilled into our public life. And just as it did in the school system, it has silenced rational, as well as productive, public conversation.

Once we consider people as a category rather than an individual, it is natural to idealize certain occupations, teachers among them. Because we all recognize, at some level, the character forming nature of our schools, criticism of curriculum and schools creates emotional heat very quickly. The good, caring and selfless nature of the idealized teacher profession is always the first response of a school system to criticism. “We love your children and selflessly give ourselves in teaching them.” How can you continue to question a school’s administration in the face of that?

Since the schools have excluding OWM’s (Old White Males) from the curriculum, Samuel Johnson’s pithy observation about scoundrels has disappeared from our collective memory. But he was experienced with the debating techniques of entrenched power in the face of questioning. Questions about curriculum and school policies are met with the ideal of the selfless teacher. Meanwhile the social engineering of the American character proceeds apace.

Social engineering is the word to describe the process and the goal of Education’s apparatchiks. School is the workshop in which social engineering is done. Those who fashion our schools curriculums are gripped by a dream of utopia, of Eden regained. Though this time Eden will not be troubled with a God making inconvenient demands on our natural appetites. They dream of a bland agrarian society built on sustainable principles, free from primitive religious doctrines, living in harmony with the true god, Mother Nature. Of course, it’s understood that outside this Potemkin Village, there will need to be an administrative cadre of people. And in order to do their job these administrators, these servants of the people, will need modern conveniences as well as health care.

Any idea that the United States is in anyway unique or that her history is admirable is incompatible with this vision. American exceptionalism has no place in the egalitarian society of the future. That idea needs to go, first thing. Instead, there is something about France that social engineers find attractive, imagining a French flavor for the model of a re-engineered United States. What could be more attractive for the peasants of the new re-imagined nation being fashioned than a life of good fresh bread, cheap wine and the peaceful lifestyle of a small village?

Perhaps nothing lays bare the soul of a nation as the special horrors of civil war. Civil wars are fought because of deep, irreconcilable and fundamental differences within the nation. A civil war is about the very essence of what a nation is. Fundamental differences drive the conflict and are finally settled by civil war. It is in a civil war that we define our identity as a nation.

This is very true of our own Civil War. Thus it has become an emotional battleground for those who seek to re-engineer our national character. In the service of that utopian dream, our schools now teach a tendentious narrative emphasizing righteous abolitionists, brave blacks such as Harriet Tubmann, evil slave owners callously raping their female slaves and a saintly Abraham Lincoln. Of course, the Christian faith animating the abolitionists, Harriet Tubmann and Abraham Lincoln must not be emphasized, or even mentioned, as that would imply Christian faith is both important and a distinctive of our national character. Of course narrative interest must be maintained to keep the students engaged and snide suggestions about slave owners being pious Christians would be just the right touch of spice.

I find this narrative deeply troubling and it saddens me. Our Civil War is rich in situations and personalities that illuminate our national character. Forgotten in the need to genuflect before the idols of the social engineers are the many episodes that can teach us and so, inspire us. Perhaps Justice William Brennan missed his high school American History class the day that the Dred Scott decision was talked about. Justice Brennan was not the first Justice to find “umbras and penumbras emanating from the Constitution” allowing him to arbitrarily settle bitterly fought social issues. Justice Roger Taney preceded his discovery by 125 years.

But History class is more important than facts and lessons. Great nations do not become great by chance. They become great because they aspire to greatness, greatness not in money or power, but great in noble character. The Romans knew this well. Among the many examples inspiring Rome’s civic life was that of Cincinnatus. Disaster against invading barbarians caused the civic leaders of Rome to come to Cincinnatus, behind the plow on his small farm, beseeching him to take on the leadership necessary to save the city. Cincinnatus left his plow standing in the field, took on the mantle of supreme command, defeating the invaders. On the day of final victory, he spurned the wealth and fame that were his just reward. He put back on his work clothes and went back to his plow.

His example was so well remembered and admired over the centuries that it echoed in our own country’s history. For example, the great city of Cincinnati, Ohio is named after Cincinnatus. Even more compelling is the fact that our own first President, George Washington, invoked the example of Cincinnatus when in the early days of the United States there were calls for him to remain President for Life, or even accept a crown as King. Episodes in our history are the means by which we teach future generations what is noble and unique about our country; that they might strive to meet those ideals.

For me, two incidents from our own Civil War illustrate the unique and noble American character, a character unlike any other in the world. It is April 9, 1865. Washington erupts in riotous victory celebrations over the news of the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox. A hard fought war of nearly five years, with hundreds of thousands dead on its battlefields, is over. Bands are playing and people are dancing on the lawn of the White House. Abraham Lincoln is cajoled into joining the celebration. To honor his appearance, the crowd asks that he pick a song for the band to play. Abraham Lincoln makes a little speech with his trademark humor, accepting the crowd’s adulation. He considers the request for a moment and responds that he would like the band to play “Dixie”. That is an American President meeting the high calling of leading our country. Can any other nation offer such an example?

One hundred and fifty miles south of Washington and two days after that celebration, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia is formally surrendered at Appomattox. The ragged and starving remnants of that army were required to march between long gauntlets of armed Union soldiers, drop their weapons and pile their flags to be burned. It so happened that the officer commanding the Union soldiers forming those gauntlets was Joshua Chamberlain, an abolitionist from Maine with very strong and longstanding hatred of the evils of slavery.

As the beaten and bowed rebel soldiers started their long humiliating trudge between the gauntlets, there was a golden opportunity for the victorious Union soldiers to insult and taunt the ragged defeated men plodding dejectedly before them. Instead, Joshua Chamberlain, a man who hated slavery from the depths of his Christian soul, gave the order for “Present Arms”. Instead of jeering and throwing refuse as the defeated men surely expected, the Union soldiers stood to attention, holding held their weapons in parade drill in an attitude of respect and honor for their beaten foe, but fellow citizens nevertheless.

John Gordon, commanding the rebel soldiers and a life long enemy of the abolitionists from New England, riding with head down and eyes downcast hears the sound of the Union soldiers coming to attention. He lifts his head, taking in the unexpected. Drawing his sword and pointing it down at his feet in salute, he then gives the order for his own men to pass in review, matching honor for honor, respect for respect. Chamberlain and Gordon are American generals and their men were American soldiers living up to the high standards of the American character. Can any other nation offer such an example?

Make no mistake. Americans are only human beings, no better or no worse than the people of other lands. We are prone to every sin known to man. But as citizens of the United States, we have been called to be something better. And once in awhile, we have been something better. Even as we fail, we expect better of ourselves because we are Americans. We have been called to be a City on a Hill. And so we have been in the past. What will happen to the downtrodden of the world if we declare ourselves just another sordid snake pit like all the others, concerned only with finger pointing and revenge for imagined wrongs?




2 Responses to “A City on a Hill”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    Please publish my e mail from a old white guy who teaches in Jeffco Public

    I had the great honor to teach 3 weeks at DEvlyan and 6 weeks@ Dakota Ridge

    I started the first day tell students about the USA and wrote on the white board and

    was not removed until my last day of teaching.

    what makes USA great? We take immigrants assimilate them ad they move up the econ later. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz first generation Cubans, go to law school, both US
    Senators and both running for President.

    Only nation on earth sends our military around world, we ask for no land or any conquest. Military units only men in history bring food, candy,hospitals,locals
    we don’t rape them, steal goods, burn their houses down. We have military
    grave yards all over the world.

    We invented Foundations, we share our wealth world wide, Ford Foundation to Gates
    Foundation ask for nothing in return.

    We are nation of laws and fair play.

  2. Paul S. says:

    I just got around to reading this Bill. I needed to read something positive and encouraging yet realistic about our great country. Thank you, as always your writing is thoughtful and challenging.

    “Episodes in our history are the means by which we teach future generations what is noble and unique about our country; that they might strive to meet those ideals.” This is so true. The examples of Cincinnatus and Washington are those of servant leadership that is often demonstrated in the Bible, but so little demonstrated in our current political and business enviroments.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!

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